I recently discovered an interesting academic source that explores horror and which I have included in my Exploring the Fantastic links, the Irish Gothic Horror Journal. This is a publication available in totality on the Internet, and as I reviewed the contents for various issues one of the items that caught my attention was an article by Finn Ballard titled “No Trespassing: The Post-Millennial Road-Horror Movie.”
In this article Ballard explores contemporary road-horror films and contrasts them with their origins in road-horror from the 1970s in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The characteristics of this subgenre of film involve “the centralisation of a group of generally young protagonists; the journey of this group into an unknown and hostile location, and its resulting encounter with a murderous, perverse and often interrelated clan of killers, preceding vile and gory consequence.” Ballard attributes the post-millennial revival of road-horror to Jeepers Creepers (2001), which in turn spawned films like Wrong Turn (2003), House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), and The Devil’s Rejects (2005).
One of the more interesting facets of Ballard’s discussion is the connection of road-horror to the folklore of the European Middle Ages, particularly in the the fairytale known as Warnmarchen, “which encompasses those stories that involved an act of transgression followed by a delineation of consequences.” With these origins, contemporary road-horror films are similar to another aspect of folklore studies, that of legend-tripping. Folklorist Bill Ellis discusses this in his helpful book Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture (University Press of Kentucky, 2004) when he mentions the legend-trip as “a set of cautionary legends that both warn of the danger of a site, and then functions as a dare to visit the very place and carry out the ritual that leads to danger.” When we consider that the primary audience for road-horror films are youth, as acknowledged by Ballard, then it is clear that road-horror functions in folklorish fashion both in an expression of warning related to the “dire consequences of straying from the path,” and also as a rite of passage for youth to undertake symbolically in conquering the trip through forbidden places by the act of viewing of such films.
Overall I greatly appreciate Ballard’s discussion of the topic, but I do have one disagreement. As previously mentioned he considers Jeepers Creepers the first of the post-millennial road-horror films. In my view Jeepers Creepers is better classified as either a modern monster movie connected to teen travels, or perhaps a combination of the traditional monster film with elements of road-horror. This would seem the best interpretation or classification in light of Ballard’s own discussion, not only in the characteristics of the sub-genre as noted above, but also where he contrasts teen slasher films and torture porn with road-horror and states that, “the villain of the road-horror is motivated primiarly by bloodust, and enacts the logic of the teen horror by dispatching those victims who commit misdemeanors by initiating sexual contact, consuming alcohol or drugs.” The creature of Jeepers Creepers does not fit this definition of the road-horror villain, and in light of other aspects of Jeepers Creepers and the road-horror sub-genre, is probably best understood as a postmodern treatment of older monster figures such as the demon or gargoyle.
Ballard’s article represents an interesting exploration of a sub-genre of horror. I have never been a fan of road-horror, either in the 1970s or the present. Nevertheless, this sub-genre is worth understanding, and Ballard suggests that these films are “the last remaining constitutor of ‘otherness’ in post-millennial America. The ultimate fear for contemporary cinemagoers is not that of discovering a refined psychopath living next door, but of being utterly isolated in an unnavigable environment, without recourse to rationality and to the tenets of modernity.”